Shifting Points of View (POV)

In writing there is an unspoken abomination. A writer may do this without realizing it. However, when he shows some of his work to his peers or editors, and they tear it to pieces. “Never switch point of view in the middle of a chapter! Whichever character you start with in a chapter, stay with that character throughout that chapter. Otherwise you confuse the reader.”

How many films have you watched where the shot doesn’t cut from one character’s face to another in the same scene—sometimes even in the same piece of dialogue? Each cut in the shot is a POV shift, and films have influenced the way the reader population imagines, so such shifts are not confusing. They simply have to be done right.

All right, all right—if you must shift POV, at least put an extra space between the different points of view.” In some instances this may work, but in most cases such extra white space disrupts the flow of the story and serves to confuse the reader. Extra white space indicates the shift in scene–not a shift in POV.

I bring this up now because when writing description as I have suggested, using the eyes of multiple characters gives a bigger picture of the setting. Again this is cinemagraphic writing. I’m not going to tell you what to do. I’m going to show you how it’s done. This is an example I wrote for this post specifically. It is not an ongoing story I’ve written previously.

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When they passed through security to enter the hotel ball, Marcus noted five men on duty―basic training and hired to look intimidating. He doubted they knew how to hold their guns properly, so he wasn’t worried about them but nodded to them and gestured for Olivia and Patrick to step ahead of him.

Trailing behind, he entered the grand ballroom. His eyes went straight to the ceiling where three huge crystal chandeliers lit the room and awed the guests. He noted the balcony a level up, and his eyes zeroed in on the swooping stairs at the opposite side of the room where wealthy guests ascended to or descended from the upper level. Calculating the distance, he determined the length of the room to be half a football field long, and he pocketed that thought away in case he needed to sprint to the stairs.

At the bottom of the stairs on either side stood two guards dressed in tuxedos and standing attentive but casual. Marcus frowned. Elite agents―recruited from all branches of the U.S. Army and trained as assassins to protect. Nothing missed their eye, and Marcus figured they already took mental note of him and labeled him as a potential danger. Sweeping his gaze around the edges of the circular room where pillars upheld the balcony and shadows congregated, Marcus numbered five on one side of the room and another five on the other.

He looked to Patrick beside him, who took in the room with a smile. “This isn’t going to be as easy as we thought.”

Patrick frowned when Marcus said this and watched him walk off. He opened his mouth to ask for clarification, but Marcus was already out of hearing range, and a guest bumped into Patrick’s shoulder. “Sorry,” he told the elderly man, but in passing Patrick noted the high tech digital watch on the man’s wrist―small and sophisticated, but it would serve Patrick’s purpose when he needed it, and he smiled at the man then continued his survey of the room.

When he first passed through the metal detectors at the door, he identified their security system as the two-year-old version of the latest Rockston TKX system. Wireless cameras with digital feed, controlled wirelessly, and an automatic lockdown system when anything foreign taps into the main feed.

“They just couldn’t have given me a challenge.” Patrick shook his head as he dug his hand into his tux’s pocket and meandered through the mingling crowd to the refreshments. He had already mastered hacking this style of system, so he didn’t understand why Marcus was so negative. Whatever went wrong, it would not be on his part.

As he passed through the crowd, he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and noted the growing list of IP addresses locating and already hacking into every cell phone in the room. Soon he would have the keys to the perfect distraction for this heist.

“Are you sure I can’t just take one painting?” Olivia fell into step with him.

Without looking up from his cell phone, Patrick shook his head. “Cameras everywhere. They’ll get your face and track you through every database available.”

“But I’m not in any databases.” This time Patrick did look up and saw Olivia pouting. Then she darted her gaze around the room and leaned in. “We’re so close! I mean, look at that beauty.” She nodded to a woman in a low-cut, curve-hugging dress, and then Olivia whacked Patrick’s arm. “The necklace, Patrick―the necklace. That’s the original Raden Diamond…and I want it.”

Draping an arm around her bare shoulders, Patrick steered Olivia away from the guests toward the refreshment table. “Yes, yes, I know you want to add more to your collection, but we’re here on a job.” He handed her a cube of cheese on a toothpick. “Stay focused.”

With a sigh, Olivia took the cheese from him and snatched wine from the tray of a passing waitress. When she caught Patrick’s disapproving look, she smirked at him. “Hey, if I can’t have fun until the job’s done, I’m at least going to relax.”

“As long as you can do your part of the job.”

Olivia made no comeback. She already located the rarest paintings on display on the walls beyond the pillars beneath the balcony―seven altogether. Each one within reach, but she knew the slightest fingerprint would trigger the security system and lockdown the ballroom. She had to wait until the system was knocked offline before daring to touch those, so in the meanwhile she did what she did best―pick people’s pockets although she had no intention to tell Patrick or Marcus that. What neither one of them knew was that she lifted their own wallets off them when they went through security, and she smiled knowing this. They would thank her later.

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In this snapshot from a scene, the POV shifts three times–from Marcus to Patrick to Olivia. Not only do you get a clearer image of the setting, but you also get a glimpse into the inner workings of each character.

Now you tell me, were the shifts choppy? Did they yank you out of the story? Or did you not even notice them because they went with the flow of the writing?

Most people will say, “Don’t switch the POV in the middle of a scene,” but keep in mind the POV is the camera of your story. If the camera swifts view, then shift POV. Always know why the switch is necessary and understand the purpose of it. If there is no purpose, and if it isn’t necessary, then no need to shift.

Are POV shifts limited to describing the setting?” No. Let’s say you’ve opened a scene through the eyes of a character who just walked on scene into a conversation. As this character is listening to the conversation unfold, he possesses secret knowledge none of the other characters know, and you don’t want your readers to know it either! If you remain in his POV, his mere thoughts can give away the secret and ruin it ahead of time. However, as an author you should be knowledgeable of who knows what, so when the crucial moment comes, you can switch to one of the other characters’ POV to keep that secret unknown to the readers. In other words, POV shifting allows you to deceive your readers.

What if I write in First Person? I can’t switch POV at will.” You’re right—you can’t, so you would have to word everything precisely. Later in this blog I’ll discuss first narrative, but first let’s continue to cover the basics of writing. 

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Movement in Description

In my previous post, the very last sentence might have caught your attention and puzzled you, ‘movement description—not static.’ What did I mean by this? Let me show you a scene written two different ways. The movement should be clear:

Example 1:

Rex pushed open the door to his hotel room. His eyes went straight to the open blinds at the opposite end of the room, and he frowned. The roof of the parking garage was a good place for a sniper to set up and wait for a shot. Rex marched to the window and yanked the blinds closed then turned back to the room. Approaching the bed, he skimmed his finger across the Bible on the nightstand leaving a trail in the thin layer of dust that had settled on the book in his absence.

He sat on the edge of the bed with shoulders hunched, exhausted. He looked at the Bible then looked up at the closed window before shifting his gaze to the right at the flat TV screen and the fridge underneath it. His eyes settled on the remote on top of the fridge, but he shook his head and laid down on the bed. He didn’t care to get up and turn on the news. The car chase he barely escaped was bound to be on every channel, and Rex didn’t care to relive how close the CIA had almost caught him. He only had enough time to close his eyes, catch a nap, and then head out again―hopefully leaving town for good.

Example 2:

Rex stepped into the hotel room. Dust covered everything. Against the wall on the left-hand side of the room was an untouched bed, and beside it was a small nightstand with a Bible on it and a lamp. On the right-hand side of the room stood a small fridge beneath the flat screen TV hanging on the wall. Rex stepped in and closed the door behind him.

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Can you tell the difference? The second one is flat, very boring though informative. It’s like an invisible reporter is with Rex and reporting everything.

The first example has movement. Using Rex’s eyes, we realize the window is open (and what’s outside the window). This detail wasn’t mentioned in the second example. Through his action of running his hand over the Bible, we realize there is a Bible on a nightstand in the room. Not only that, but we also see that it’s dusty. When he lies down, he sees the TV screen and then the remote on top of the fridge (again another detail that wasn’t included in the second example).

By the end of the first example, we see the room—not perfectly because we don’t know what color the walls are or the color of the comforter on the bed or how many pillows there are or anything like that. But we see the room—the important details.

Not only that, but we also get a glimpse into Rex’s habits (not having the blinds open) and a sense of exhaustion and urgency from being chased. We can relate to him and therefore start to care about him. When the reader cares about the character, he will invest time to finish the book to see how the story ends.

In the second example, we have static description. Like I said, it’s like we have a reporter describing the scene—the bare facts. It’s shallow, hollow, dry, and very, very boring. It offers no depth into the character and no insight into the conflict of the story. For all I know, according to the second example, Rex could be a jock from high school on spring break enjoying a vacation in Mexico.

What if the character doesn’t move when entering the scene? Then what?” Unless the character is blind, he will still notice details with his eyes. What he notices depends on what kind of person he is–such as the ex-Marine, hacker, or thief. If the character is blind, she will still notice details of the room but different than the visual cues the sighted see. Only an individual completely familiar with the room would walk into it without noticing anything. Have you ever walked into your own bedroom and not notice little details such pictures hanging on the wall of your buddies back in high school or how dusty your bookshelf is getting and that you should dust it soon?

Part of being a writer is being observant. If you don’t notice details around you, then start seeing them, and it will be easier to work them into your writing in a fluid manner.

Paint Pictures With Words

Show–don’t tell. That has been my motto for this blog. “But how do I know what to show? There’s so much! How am I supposed to describe every little detail?!” The good news is, no, you don’t have to describe every small detail. “But I want everyone to see it exactly like I do in my mind!” That is a noble undertaking but altogether impossible. When I was a younger writer struggling with my craft, I argued with a wiser author on this very point, and he put it simply, “No matter how hard you write, if you show your work to seven different people, they will all see it seven different ways. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

When I stepped back and calmed down, this was liberating.

In junior college, an English professor demanded every detail. He used an example of a piece describing a feast. Every food, drink, crumb, color, texture, sound, person, and action was described. He wanted our essay papers to be just as detailed. What do I remember of that picture painted? Nothing. I only recall long lists of jumbled words, but it wasn’t alive, and it wasn’t a picture.

When I discovered I didn’t have to write all that, I could breath, relax, and have fun.

When should you describe something?” Use description if only it is important to the story. I don’t care if Princess Agnes’ ball gown is made of silk, satin, or velvet with sparkles. I don’t care if it’s floor length with a train, ankle length, or even at her knees. I don’t care if it’s a pencil skirt hugging her curves, an A-skirt, or a big puffy skirt. Did she wear high heels or flats? I don’t care. All I care about is the color because that gives insight into her personality as well as sets a tone for the rest of the scene. All the other details can sneak in throughout the scene.

Is there ever a time to include such detail?” Of course—if only it’s important. For instance, say the ball isn’t going to have a happy ending because everyone is going to be taken hostage, so no one can leave the building. Now, let’s add the element that Princess Agnes is trained in martial arts, so she is not defenseless in this situation and chose her dress accordingly just in case of disaster. She wouldn’t wear a tight dress but would wear something that would free her movements as well as hide any knives she might have. It wouldn’t be too short or too long. And her shoes depends on her balance and confidence. If she can sprint and do a sidekick in heels, I applaud her, but it’s doubtful she would wear 5-inch stilettos. Again, all these details can slip in throughout the scene. There is no need to write her intro into the scene and take up two pages describing every detail of her dress and shoes.

Imagine when you’re writing a scene, it is shown like a movie. The more details you add, the slower the scene passes. For example, two men are walking down a hall with purpose, and when they turn a corner, they run into a new character. Now, you have the option of describing this new character from head to toe in the most profound details. However, when you do that, the ‘camera’ suddenly slows. If your other two characters are rushing through the corridor when they run into this character, how much sense does it make for them to halt and take note of everything about this new person? Most people wouldn’t notice much about him other than the fact that he is present, blocking the way, and whether he’s a threat or not. If he’s perceived not to be a threat, then there is no reason why the other two characters would linger long but rather nod in greeting and pass him by.

Just keep in mind, the more details you add, the slower the scene will pass, and it’s likely the reader will skip these block paragraphs.

I’m not worried about describing my character. I’m trying to describe the room—the setting.” It is vital to establish the setting of each scene before investing too much time in the scene, but there is a delicate balance. How much is too much, and how much is just enough?

Before you begin writing the scene, you must put yourself into it. Leave out the characters, the distractions, and the action. Imagine you’re a playwright, whose play is going to be performed for the first time on stage the following day. You can’t sleep, so you go to the theatre. It’s empty and dark, but the stage is set up for the morning rehearsals and later the actual performance. You wander through the props and gaze around at the wonder the world will see later.

This is where you need to be before you write the scene. Walk through the scenes, down those corridors, through the doors. What catches your eye? Does the rope fastened to the wall catch your attention and draw your gaze up, up, up to the crystal chandelier? Hmm, that gives you an idea, so you make note of that detail. Ignore how many steps the wide-sweeping stairs have where your protagonist, Princess Agnes, will walk down. Ignore the number of pillars lining the room—but note the way the shadows gather under the balcony. Note how the ceiling vaults but ignore how it is a dome style and not a cathedral ceiling. The windows too, they’re important, but don’t count every one of them.

These are the details Princess Agnes will notice when she enters the room, and through her eyes the picture will be painted.

But what if there’s one small detail that the character wouldn’t notice but is important for another scene?” Details significant to the story should be mentioned but without disturbing the flow of the scene or seeming out character. For instance, after Princess Agnes descends the stairs, she might walk past a table just as a random individual sets down a sealed letter then slips away. It will strike the reader as odd, but they will go along with it just as long as the letter is explained either later in the scene or later in the story.

If you want a very detailed description of a room, don’t create an ‘all-observant’ character that notes every little detail! In reality, that is impossible, and stories are supposed to be a reflection of reality. Not one person will be able to notice everything in a room. However, what you can do is have several different characters enter the ballroom. Let’s say you have an ex-Marine, a hacker, and a thief enter the ballroom together (yes, this scene suddenly became modern instead of medieval). The ex-Marine will notice the number and location of each bodyguard as well as their body build. By their stance, he might be able to identify their fighting style and if they have any military training. The hacker will notice the technological security as well as the models of the computer systems in the room. He’ll notice the different phones and even the fancy digital watches. The thief will make note of the jewelry and identify any rare pieces of art. She’ll see the original paintings on the walls, ancient statues around the room, and unusual artifacts. Alone, each character would see the room differently, but when we see the room through their eyes, we get a clearer and broader picture.

So that’s all? That’s it?” Well, I could go on a long rant about what makes good description easy to read, but that’s not my place. As a writer, you must discover your own style of writing description. Keep in mind what I said, apply it to what you already do, and see how it all unfolds. The only other piece of advice I can say is, keep it simple but poetic if possible. Movement description—not static.